$4.15 million later, Capitol Hill’s Colman Automotive building restored to 1916 glory

(Images: Alex Garland for CHS except where noted)

It was like layers of heavy, pore-clogging makeup pancaked onto a face. For decades, the artificial mask suffocated what lay beneath and deprived passersby of its true beauty. No more. 

A four-month renovation project has successfully peeled off coats of stucco and metal paneling that concealed parts of the Colman Automotive Building building on Bellevue and Pine.

“It was just nasty metal corrugated siding,” said Michael Oaksmith, managing partner at Hunters Capital, the boutique real estate firm that is on a mission to further its investments in the neighborhood and preserve historic properties in the Pike Pine corridor.

Hunters Capital also acquired and renovated the structures that house Poquitos, Elliott Bay Books and Blick Art Materials.

“Our goal is to save as many historic ‘Auto Row’ buildings as possible,” said Oaksmith. “There’s just a charm that you can’t replicate.” 

In April, Hunters Capital acquired the building at 401 E. Pine for $3.85 million and set out to go back in time, to 1916 to be exact. That’s when the two-story building was developed by J.M. Colman, the Seattle man who made a fortune in timber and than diversified into real estate. Named after its developer, the Colman Building served as a garage for auto-related businesses and fit in perfectly amongst the car dealerships on Capitol Hill’s Auto Row.

In the 1950s, the building’s owner heaped a ton of stucco on the lower façade. The corrugated paneling came afterwards. For the next 60 years, the layers masked much of the first floor’s exterior. The second floor was spared and served as a hint of what was trapped below.

To free the original exterior, Hunters Capital consulted with the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, getting their advice on how to match the original architecture. Mallet Construction served as the lead contractor on the work, according to Hunters.

Contractors began peeling back the gray metal panels and stucco. In time, they exposed the beautiful brick columns and ornate shadow boxing beneath. They also revealed additional windows, which had been inexplicably covered up. 

“From the state we bought it in, we actually uncovered 30% more glazing,” said Smith.

Then, the job shifted to rebuilding much of the woodwork by hand. Another challenge was fabricating new metal corbels underneath the cornice because three of the eight were missing. 

“We had to go to an Iowa company that specializes in this kind of work,” said Smith. “We wrapped and shipped one over to them so they could replicate it.”

In all, Hunters Capital said it spent about $300,000 on the four month project. That’s on top of the $3.85 million it paid for the building. “We are really excited with the building, inside and out,” said Smith. “We just feel every dollar we put in to it was a dollar well spent.” 

Before (Image: Hunters Capital)

After (Image: Hunters Capital)

The tenants agree.

“All of our customers, clients and Pine Street neighbors love the new façade,” said a manager at Area 51, the furniture store that has a lease on the building through 2015. “It’s a magnificent jewel to behold.”

The State of Washington also recognizes the building’s historic value. In October, it placed the building, renamed the “Colman Automotive Building” in honor of its roots, on the Washington Heritage Register of Historic Places.

Hunters Capital is not done yet. Oaksmith says the firm is eyeing several other properties on Capitol Hill to purchase and preserve. 

That should come as cool comfort for those buildings still trapped underneath a ton of “makeup” or those that face possible destruction and redevelopment.

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28 thoughts on “$4.15 million later, Capitol Hill’s Colman Automotive building restored to 1916 glory

  1. I agree! I walked by this building the other night and, looking in, remarked to the people I was walking with “wow, I never noticed how big this place is!”. At the time I didn’t even make the connection that a serious restoration had been done. No wonder I never noticed before. It looks great. Well done, Hunters.

  2. I am so glad to see that this work has been completed. I have loved this building for a long time. Great to see that it has been made whole.

    Also, I love seeing lights on in the entrance on Crawford Place. I’ve always hoped that the space there could be transformed into a hole in the wall bar, café, or eatery. We will see!

  3. ‘$4.15 million later, Capitol Hill’s Colman Automotive Building restored to 1916 glory’ while gammatically correct, without a second verb, implies that the cost of the restoration was 4.15 mil. The only verb you used was ‘restored.’ Please split the headline and clarify the most recent purchase price, or use the lower dollar amount of 300k, the cost of the restoration, not that I’m your copy editor.

  4. I live on that block and it is nice to see that building fixed up. I remember when the gas station museum on the upper floor use dto host parties and stuff, but they don’t do that anymore that I know of.

    Of course that was back when there was way more surface private parking lots for visitors those are all gone now so that would make it harder for a place like that to host events.

  5. It *can* be really helpful. And doesn’t drain the spirit when done in the “let’s work together” mode of things. I think we do a pretty good job on the grammar/typo/clear more than clever headline end of things but we do play fast and loose at times and there are plenty of examples where we blow it and need a hand. It’s the people who thrust a stick instead of a hand that get old. But it’s also way low on my worry list. I’ll live :)

  6. This is the level the bar has been raised. This is Capitol Hill. Now if other developers (read Melrose Bldg. / Bauhaus)will step up, and work with the present tenants, it’ll be great.

  7. I think they did a fantastic job on the renovation! I loved the ‘VIDEO’ sign, but I realize it didn’t really go with the building. The post-renovation look is fantastic and I hope it’s possible to work more buildings the same way. It’s great they could preserve the building, leave the existing tenant intact and still update as needed.

    Thanks for this story. I honestly wasn’t aware the work was finished, it was so well executed.

  8. Subject line says it all, save for the fact that it ought to be in caps for going the extra mile to not only save a great old building but to do such a magnificent job of renovating it. Man, I’ll bet it looks better now than it did when it was first constructed! So, once again, fortissimo: THANK YOU, HUNTERS CAPITAL!

  9. Pingback: As city considers strengthened rules for Pike/Pine, developer says 8-story project is how preservation should be done | CHS Capitol Hill Seattle